Jeff Stehney walked with the hitching gait of a person bound for the airport carrying one too many bags. In each hand he held a soft-sided suitcase stuffed with a 30-pound brisket on ice. He got as far as the car in the driveway of the Roeland Park home he shares with his wife, Joy, before he went back inside and put the meat in the refrigerator. The co-owner of Oklahoma Joe's was about to fly to the World Brisket Open in Welfare, Texas, without brisket.
A week before that Independence Day weekend in 1992, he shipped his knives, wood — bags of oak and cherry — and spices to a friend in San Antonio. He arranged to borrow an Oklahoma Joe smoker from an area dealer. And when he and Joy touched down in that city, they headed straight for the Kraft Foods commissary (at the time, Stehney was a district sales manager for the company), where a backup pair of briskets sat waiting. Stehney's casual weekend trip was actually a tactical strike that the barbecue world never saw coming.
"I knew that a Roeland Park guy, Paul Kirk, had won it the year before," Stehney says. "He was the only Kansas City guy out of 60 teams. I figured if he could do it, we could do it."
Adding to his confidence was the fact that, less than two months before the Texas cook-off, Stehney and Joy earned Reserve Grand Champion honors at a barbecue contest in Raytown. "I was probably hooked from that moment on," he says.
Each World Brisket Open team was allowed as many entries as it was willing to pay for. At the Don Strange Ranch, in Welfare, Stehney entered two briskets at $100 apiece under the team name Slaughterhouse Five.
"We'd mistimed it, and I remember we're still a good 150 or 200 yards away from the tent when I hear our team name," Stehney says. "I turned to Joy and said, 'I think we just won something. I think it was second place.' Then I started running and I heard our name again. And I know I heard the words 'grand champion.' I stopped in my tracks because we had just won first and second."
As the couple took the stage, the crowd booed. A Kansas City team winning a Texas competition for the second year in a row was an unpopular choice. Jeff and Joy didn't mind. They were taking home gold trophies and prize checks totaling $6,500.
"Joy told me on the car ride back that she had been prepared to give this long, thought-out speech as to why this trip and the barbecue thing was one of the dumbest things she'd ever seen," Stehney says. "Right until we won."
Since then, the restaurant founded on that victory, Oklahoma Joe's, has emerged as an Oz for barbecue travelers, with Jeff Stehney its wizard. The hungry arrive from every state (Marketing Director Doug Worgul claims to have seen Hawaii and Alaska represented in the parking lot on the same day), eager to taste the meat cooked in the six smokers behind an otherwise ordinary Shamrock gas station in Kansas City, Kansas.
Some of the pilgrims stand next to a picture of Anthony Bourdain, the chef and author who included the restaurant in his "13 Places to Eat Before You Die," a June 2009 piece in Men's Health magazine. But most simply line up for the 'cue that has been anointed by food shows and national critics as the reason that humans put fire to meat.
"Oklahoma Joe's is number one without a doubt," says chef Paul Kirk, one of the founding members of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. "In rain, snow or sleet or whatever, at 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, you see that line coming out the door. He found a product that people like better than the other stuff."
A trim man, with salt-and-pepper edging in his black hair, Stehney is not often recognized outside competition-barbecue settings. He's more often mistaken for former University of Kansas basketball coach Larry Brown, to whom he bears a passing resemblance (enhanced by his squared-off eyeglasses). All of this is fine with Stehney, who — like the Great and Powerful Oz — would rather stay unseen behind the smoke.
While Stehney, 52, can claim Oklahoma roots, he is not the namesake of Oklahoma Joe's. That would be his former business partner, Joe Don Davidson.
"I remember when Jeff came to me and said he wanted to open an Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City," Davidson recalls. "I said, 'Man, that's the toughest market in the world. Why would you want to do that?' And he told me, 'If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere.' "
Four blocks from his home, Stehney spotted a failed fried-chicken-and-liquor-store operation (called One Fast Chick-n) in a corner gas station at 47th Street and Mission Road. There, Oklahoma Joe's opened in August 1996; ten years later, the liquor-store portion of the space was converted into a kitchen and an office.
On a Wednesday afternoon in late May, Stehney sits at his desk at the restaurant, working the phone. Through his office window, he can see a line of people on the sidewalk that extends 50 feet from the front door. In Olathe, there's similar demand at the restaurant's second location, which he opened in a former nightclub seven years ago. And Stehney is about to take his smokers to Leawood for a third outpost. The 210-seat Joe's No. 3 (as Stehney and Worgul have taken to calling it), a former T.G.I. Friday's at 11723 Roe, opens July 2.
Over the past several months, Stehney has fielded franchise queries from as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as one New Jersey man who wanted to pay Stehney $1,000 a day to shadow him for a week. On this spring day, though, between calls from suppliers, he explains that the newest of his Oklahoma Joe's troika is also the last expansion he plans to undertake.
"I don't think we'll ever get branded a chain — that scares the crap out of me," Stehney says. "We've got a responsibility to promote Kansas City as barbecue country. We're not going to go all around the dang country. We've got plenty of opportunities. I just tell people, 'There's nothing I can do to accommodate your wishes.' "
Stehney was born in Buffalo, New York, at a time when barbecue was still considered ethnic cuisine. The spiciest thing in the house was the Vernors ginger ale that his mother, Carol (a Lansing, Michigan, native), loved. She was a Betty Crocker-era homemaker whose meal repertoire favored chop suey and cinnamon rolls. At 9 years old, Stehney began cooking for himself, making French toast on an electric skillet. The secrets of butchering and preparing a pig would come later, from his father John's Slovenian relatives on their hog farms in southwestern Pennsylvania.
His father's work as a mechanical engineer took the family around the country to Chicago, Kansas City and then Bixby, Oklahoma. But it wasn't until he got to the University of Kansas that Stehney discovered the world of barbecue and the business of restaurants. Many of his close friends and longtime employees are from those days in Lawrence. Artist Mike Savage, who painted an 8-foot-by-8-foot tin sign for the Leawood restaurant, and Charlie Podrebarac, a Kansas City Star cartoonist and Stehney's partner in the Cowtown Barbeque Products line of rubs and sauces, are fellow KU alums.
"It's lead, follow or get out of the way," Savage says. "And Jeff is definitely the lead guy."
Stehney graduated with a degree in advertising in 1983 and began working as a waiter at Kansas City's Alameda Plaza Hotel (now the InterContinental). He loved the work, but he saw servers 10 years his senior, also with college degrees, living off tips. The food-supply business promised some upward mobility and allowed him to stay connected to the restaurant scene. During his five years with Pisciotta Fruit and Vegetable, in the City Market, he learned what makes a restaurant operator successful. (He also met an inside sales representative named Joy. In August, the couple celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary.)
Around that time, barbecue competitions changed from something he did with friends to something he entered to win.
"It was the competition," Stehney says. "If there had been a competition where you went out and baked cakes, got to drink with your friends and, at the end of the day, there was a dinner, I would have gone out and baked cakes."
His first competition smoker, an Oklahoma Joe model, arrived in 1991. By the following summer, Stehney, Joy, Jim Howell, and fellow Kraft employee Jim Harmon were regularly pulling in prizes. In Kansas City Barbeque Society events, in which most of their opponents entered tenderloins in the pork category, Slaughterhouse Five smoked pork butt. It was what they knew how to cook, Stehney says. But it was also something they wouldn't tire of eating the week after the competition. With more and more weekends devoted to hitching the smoker to a trailer, pork butt was never far from their plates or minds.
"He didn't go to a contest if he didn't think he could win," Kirk says. "He really worked at his trade. To be successful like Jeff, first you've got to have some talent. But you also have to practice and practice and practice."
On the strength of more than a dozen wins at major competitions in 1993 — that's a career for a successful pit master — Slaughterhouse Five was named the Kansas City Barbeque Society's team of the year. Joy and Jeff rented a refrigerated truck, which they parked in the driveway on weekends, and began catering. And when they needed more space, it was Joy's Pepsi habit that pointed them toward the gas station. The place she stopped for a morning soda on her way to work downtown would become the home of their first commercial kitchen.
"That year, it seemed like if I wasn't winning, he was winning," says Davidson, who won the grand championship at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in October 1993. The amicable rivals had a standing gentleman's bet of $100 per category. "We got to be great friends," Davidson says. "We were at so many of the same dang cook-offs, and I liked to beat him and he liked to beat me."
Unlike Stehney, Davidson was in the barbecue world full time. In 1987, Davidson went to the Oklahoma State Fair as an agricultural engineering student hoping to sell 12 smokers he'd built as a potential side business. He left with 120 orders and put his education at Oklahoma State University on hold. Davidson's success on the competition circuit became his best advertisement. In barbecue, as in NASCAR, the model you need is the one that is winning right now.
When Davidson broke ground on a new manufacturing plant in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1994, he began to think about opening a restaurant to capitalize on his brand. He approached Stehney and proposed an equal partnership, convincing him to run the original Oklahoma Joe's location that opened in Stillwater in January 1996. Five years after buying a smoker from Davidson, Stehney was working alongside him.
"Jeff and I are both phenomenally competitive, but we're very different," Davidson says. "I was a bet-the-farm risk taker and I cooked that way. He was more methodical, thought-out and organized than I was. That's what made it work."
The Oklahoman supplied his sauce and rubs, which had been named "best on the planet" at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue. Stehney was tasked with adapting his approach to competition barbecue.
"With competition barbecue, you're taking meat right to the edge," Davidson says. "The perfect rib is the one you can't eat 10 minutes later. By spending all those hours fine-tuning our cooking systems at Oklahoma Joe's, Jeff figured out how to make it right, how to hold meat. And that's what makes Oklahoma Joe's so unique."
"Many people dream about building on their success in competitions and going into business," says Ardie Davis, a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. "But then they try it and discover it's a whole different animal. That's not the case with them."
Stehney, eager to spend less time commuting between Roeland Park and Stillwater, urged Davidson to open a second restaurant, and by August 1996 the Mission Road location was up and running. Joy left her job with the Black-eyed Pea restaurant franchise to run the business alongside Jeff. She was a constant behind the counter while Stehney handled the smoker.
When Davidson sold his smoker company in the spring of 1998 to New Braunfels, he also granted the subsidiary of Char-Broil the retail rights to sell his sauces and rubs under that name. He retained the Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue and Catering business. With Davidson headed to Texas to work for New Braunfels, the duo decided to close the now-pitmasterless Stillwater location. Stehney then bought Davidson out of the KCK restaurant and was granted a sub-license for the name.
"We were very good friends for a very long time and business partners for a short time," Stehney says. "It didn't work out the way we hoped. I give Joe a lot of credit — he certainly helped me jump into something it turns out I was pretty good at."
Davidson opened his own Oklahoma Joe's restaurant in Tulsa last December. The menu features the familiar Z-Man brisket sandwich alongside okra and bologna — barbecue staples of the Sooner state — but Stehney has no financial interest in the business.
"I get to take advantage of the fact that Jeff's been perfecting his systems since 1996," Davidson says. "It's been a blessing for me that he would open his books like that to me and just give me the keys to his castle."
A little after 7:30 a.m. each day, the pork butts are ready to be pulled out of the white-oak-fueled smoker. The heat and the fans have been carefully regulated so that the meat retains moisture and a smoke ring forms beneath a luscious brown bark. Gloved hands trim the fat and then squeeze it over the meat. Stehney can tell the pork's temperature by touch before the thermometer needle has finished its confirming rise.
"We don't oversmoke our food," he says. "I don't want it to taste like a railroad tie. The things that are flavoring the meat aren't the things that are visible."
That includes Stehney, a fact that makes his restaurant an outlier in Kansas City barbecue. The pitmaster's name — his name — isn't on the sign. The menu's signature dish, Carolina-style pulled pork, is from another region. Oklahoma Joe's does things differently because Jeff Stehney believes his way is the way things should be done.
"We're not a mom-and-pop shop anymore," Stehney says. "But I never wanted to create a huge corporate conglomerate. It's important to me that I keep the company at a place where I can manage it — where all the restaurants are at the same level [and] it's just the experience that's different."
So it's his taste that drives the restaurant. The grilled chicken sandwich, Stehney's least-favorite menu item, was quietly reintroduced recently, after about six weeks of development, as a pulled-chicken sandwich. Like the blue flame of his smokers, Stehney keeps himself largely insulated from the machinery of promotion. He prefers making pitmaster tweaks and staying out of view. It's Worgul who leads an MTV crew behind the counter or appears on camera for the Travel Channel to talk about the 12,000 pounds of pulled pork that go into Bessie, Wilbur and Smokie for 17 hours.
Jeff and Joy Stehney, who have no children, have grown the company enough that Stehney has a small management team of a half-dozen people in place. Vacations in the early days of the restaurant were the hours spent competing at the American Royal. Today, the couple can travel, indulging their own culinary tourism in places like Las Vegas and New Mexico.
Once the Leawood restaurant is established and a planned expansion at the Olathe restaurant is finished this fall (the Stehneys' Kansas City BBQ Store moved two doors down in order to give the dining room and kitchen some breathing room), Stehney says, he might try to start a series of stand-alone businesses, perhaps something with specialty smoked meats.
"Food is science and art," Stehney says. "I want to understand as much as I can about the science without being blinded by it. The competition side of me is almost like the racing division of a manufacturer. I keep looking to see if we could be doing something better."